Friday, January 15, 2010
Monday evening they were already running late when Fisher couldn't remember if he had moved the sledgehammer into the office. He ran back to check.
“Was it there?” asked Jo on his return, using the visor vanity mirror to finish her makeup.
“Yeah, it was. Sorry.”
“Let's go. Let's go.”
They drove across the drawbridge out to Siesta Key past the high-rise condos, hundred foot yachts and private homes hidden behind iron gates manned by guardhouses. They turned onto a winding private drive lined by giant palms. The road ended on a huge field of a great estate. The field had been freshly mown to accommodate the large number of cars expected.
The estate, now the property of the county, consisted of a forty-seven room mansion and a number of out-buildings spread on along sixty-six acres above Manatee Bay. All had once been the home of a famous circus impresario. In his memory the entire staff manning the expo, including the valets driving the golf carts ferrying people from the field to the main grounds, was dressed in circus costumes. Jo, wearing heels and a bright red dress, was glad for the ride.
Monday was the first day of the week-long event. Representatives from restaurants and food purveyors from all over the county flocked to the expo to display their wares. The estate's carriage house was ringed with food booths and kiosks offering grilled kabobs of fish and fruit, mimosas made with fresh squeezed orange juice and stone-crab puffs while jugglers, stilt-walkers and circus bands paraded through the throng.
Jo introduced Fisher to sales-reps, chefs, fellow restaurateurs... They wanted to be witnessed together by as many people as possible. They waited on line to officially establish their presence by having a newspaper photographer take their picture standing at the base of a ten foot granite statue of a laughing clown called “Master of Mirth”.
A crescent moon rose over the grounds and the bulk of the crowd gathered on the great lawn to watch the fireworks launched from barges on the bay.
“Where's the car?” Fisher asked.
“On Grove, between Fourth and Fifth. It's about half-a-mile from the wall behind the sculpture garden.” She dropped the keys in his free hand. “It's a black Jeep.” Fisher coughed, almost choking on a crab-puff. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” he said hoarsely, raising his arms above his head to help the lodged piece pass down his esophagus. “Whose car is it?”
A friend, right. More likely a sister. For all Fisher knew, Sarah was watching them right now wearing one of her clown get-ups. Jo brushed a crumb off the lapel of his jacket and leaned against him. “Be careful,” she whispered and kissed him softly on the lips. The kiss of death, thought Fisher. He looked into her eyes, but they revealed nothing. A loud firework boomed overhead and he ducked off, glancing back once to look at Jo. This is the last time, he thought. I'll never see her again. When he turned back, he nearly bumped into a waiter dressed as a clown.
“Excuse me,” Fisher said, wondering if this could be it. But the clown was clearly a man and not sister Sarah. He frowned at Fisher from beneath his make-up and moved on. Fisher was beginning to hate clowns. Discretely he slipped away from the crowd into the sculpture garden and followed a service path through to the wall. No one saw him climb off the property.
He jumped off the wall and suddenly felt weightless, far above the ground, the tangled web of his world looked miles away. Maybe he could free-fall forever and never have to touch down, or maybe he would land somewhere else where Jo and he had never crossed paths. If he turned his body slightly maybe the gulf stream would catch him and carry him to a soft landing in a safe place. In the background music was playing, what was the song? A calypso calling him to an island?
No, it was the expo-circus band from behind the wall. The ground was below coming up fast. He landed on a root and felt the pain shoot through his leg.
He found Grove street and walked with a slight limp to Fourth. The Jeep was parked exactly where Jo said it would be.
Paduano watched and waited from his Corolla in the parking field. His suitcase was in the trunk. Having again lost Robin Grant's trail, he'd been ordered back to Rosehill by his chief. Without Grant there was nothing solid to go on, plus he had no jurisdiction in Manatee or, for that matter, anywhere outside of Nassau County. But his instincts told him something was going on.
The smell of fried delicacies wafted from the main grounds to the field making Paduano's stomach grumble. He was starving. But this was a one man stake-out. He knew if he left his car to eat, he might miss Jo and Fisher. One of the parking valets passed by in a golf cart.
“Need a lift to the festivities, sir?”
“No thanks, I'm waiting for somebody. But listen, are you driving back up there?” Paduano said, pointing to the house.
“I wonder if you could do me a favor?”
Fisher parked the Jeep on the far side of the marina. There was no registration in the glove compartment, but he was sure it was Sarah's car. The gym bag, as planned, was under the seat. He checked his watch. Less than two hours to trash the office, take the cash, drive to Troyers, make the drop, drive back to the estate and slip into the mansion in time for the wine auction where he and Jo would be bidding conspicuously. “Be careful” she said. Go damn right. Fisher wondered where and when it would come from? Not at the track, too many people. Inside the office? Would Jo do that? Have him killed in cold blood? Paduano warned him. “...I don't know the kind of shit you're swimming in...” Deep. Deep, deep shit. “I know you,” Jo said to him. What did she know? What would be waiting for him when he turned the knob and walked through the door; the lady or the tiger? Or both.
Fisher felt exhausted. He needed to close his eyes for a moment. In the haze of half-sleep he watched himself cross behind the Sloop to the rear entrance to the office. His hand turned the door knob, he entered and heard Sarah laugh just before she shot him between the eyes.
Heavy odds pointed to this scenario; practically a sure thing. Practically. All his life he played the long odds. Should he play them one more time? Paduano could be wrong, or he could be playing Fisher, trying to make him do something stupid. And Sarah? Why should he believe a word she said when everything she said was lies? He could walk up to the door, turn the knob and find the office was exactly as he'd left it, not a paper out of place, the large black safe untouched with the sledgehammer leaning against it. Sarah wouldn't step out of the shadows, because she'd be waiting for him at the track. And when he paid her off, Sarah would vanish from their lives. He would find Jo at the auction, take her hand and squeeze it as she bid on the Bordeaux. So there was the bet. Long shot or heavy odds. Lady or the tiger. Fisher opened his eyes. He felt resurrected; he had made his choice. He grabbed the gym bag and opened the door of the Jeep.
Inside the office a manic laugh was followed by two muffled gunshots that sounded for all the world like fireworks.
Troyers Grove, a former dog track recently converted to harness-racing, crammed in twelve races a night, seven days a week along with half-priced beer and free-admission to children under twelve. Mondays, women entered free of charge. The place was packed.
She sensed she was being followed so she ducked into the ladies room. The third stall was free, she locked the door behind her and sat on the toilet changing into a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt. She tucked back her hair and put on the Devils Ray baseball cap she'd borrowed for the night. Pulling the brim of the cap down over her face, she exited the restroom behind a fat lady with three girls.
After stuffing the dress in a garbage can, she reversed her direction, taking the long way around the stands, weaving past the vendors and the program hawkers, keeping in the shadows.
The P.A. announced the official results of the sixth race. A couple leaped for joy screaming “we won” over and over. Obliviously happy, the man swung his date in the air, nearly knocking into her. The man tried to apologize, but she waved him off, pulling down the cap even further. She checked the section of the grand stand. Twenty-six. Seven to go. The place gave her the chills. She realized she hadn't been at a track in more than a year.
After waiting outside the restroom for ten minutes, Paduano knew he'd lost her. She'd surprised him earlier at the Expo, scurrying across the mowed lot with her shoes in her hands while he was finishing off the fried scallops the parking valet had cart-delivered. With Fisher nowhere in sight, she drove off the grounds. Paduano, tailing from a distance, followed her to the lot at Troyers and into the grandstand. She'd been easy to follow in that red dress, but obviously she changed clothes while in the Ladies. Paduano kicked himself for falling asleep at the wheel. Troyers was a huge anthill crawling with ants. He was going to have to get lucky.
It was less than five minutes to post by the time Jo reached section thirty-three, but she couldn't find the binocular rental. The last thing she wanted to do was to ask someone where it was. She needed to be invisible, nothing to connect her to this place when they'd find his body. Where in hell was the damn stand? She couldn't see a thing with the the cap pulled so low.
“Hello Jo,” a voice said from behind her.
“Who did you expect,” he said, “...someone from the Rotary?”
“Thank God, you're still here.
“What do you mean 'still'?”
“Are you leaving with her? Are you going with Sarah?”
“Thank God,” she said. “I was so afraid. The way you looked at me at the expo. Like we would never see each other again.”
Fisher had to smile. She was so good.
“Let's go, Fish. Let's get out of here.”
“What about the money, Jo?”
“We don't give her the money. We don't give her a thing.”
“What about the pictures, the negatives?”
“She's bluffing, Fish. Let's get out of here."
“She told me, Jo. She told me how she went to jail for twenty-seven months. Paduano verified it. Twenty-seven months. And the whole time she kept her mouth shut, she never said one word about being partners with you and Landy. More than two years and she kept you two out of jail. No why would she do that? Why should she?
"You know why. Becasue she's your sister."
"Stop it Jo. It's over. Paduano showed me a copy of the lease from the Sugarloaf Key with both your names on it. Johanna and Robin Grant. She's your sister Jo. She's your fucking sister."
"Fish, let me explain..."
"Explain what? How your sister did time for you? How your sister did break-ins for you? What else is your sister going to do for you?
"But I'll tell you something, Jo. Your sister, your lovely little sister has this idea in her head that she was set up. Set up for deal in the Keys. All this time she thought it was Jack who let her get caught. But now she has come around to thinking maybe it was you.”
“She's a liar.”
“Jesus, Jo, you lie to me this whole time and you're calling her a liar?"
"Stop it Jo. Just tell me one thing. One true thing. Did you set her up, Jo? Did you send her to jail?"
The P.A. announced “One minute to post.”
“Fish, let's get out of here. I'll do whatever you want. Please, let's go.”
“Where? Back to the office where Sarah is waiting to put a bullet in my brain?”
“What are you talking about? You said she's coming here.”
“Make it look like a robbery, place already trashed. I walk in...
'boom' she shoots me. Shoots me for you. Like you wanted me to do with Landy.
“That was both of us.”
“Both of us? Both of us, what, Jo? Been turning around in my head for days like some tumor gonna explode all over. Both of us, what?”
“Loved each other.”
The bell rang the horses were off.
“I told you Fish, I would never give you up. Never.” Jo eyes filled with tears. “Sarah... She was fucking Jack, O.K.? She was fucking my husband right in my face. So did I give a shit when she went to prison? No. But when she came out she went right on fucking him. And then she fucks you... Oh, Fish please...”
“If I was setting you up, why would I be here? Why would I come?”
“For the kick, Jo.”
“That the kick you get here isn't out there.”
“I'll do whatever you want. But we've got to get out of here.”
“I want to see if she shows.”
“If she shows, then I know I'm wrong and you're right.”
Fisher sets the gym bag on the ground between them and said “Care to make a bet?”
On the track as the horses raced into the far turn the P.A. made the call.
“Bobby's Baby in front. Big Shorty in second, Rainy Day Woman moves into third, The Sandman in fourth...”
A low roar rose from the crowd as the horses battled for the lead. The trappings of the world they once shared spun all around them.
Jo reached in her bag for the gun.
So that's the way it's going to be, thought Fisher, as Jo stepped close, planning to time the shot when the crowd roar was at it loudest.
“And down the stretch they come,” yelled the P.A.. “Big Shorty to the front, Rainy Day Woman in second and here comes The Sandman!”
“You're right, Fish,” Jo said. “She's not coming.”
“How many meetings you go to before you picked me? A sucker like me.”
“You were, Fish," she said. "You were the kick.”
Fisher closed his eyes waiting for the shot.
“It's The Sandman taking the lead. The Sandman by two lengths,” said the P.A. over the roar. “Sandman pulling away...”
When Fisher opened his eyes, Jo was gone along with the bag.
Paduano cursed under his breath. The shirt was suppose to last him through his flight home, but dark circles were spreading from under both arms, a two front sweat invasion. He chugged through the lot half a football field behind, the fried scallops bouncing in his gut. Jo was long gone, but he caught a glimpse of Fisher, leaving the stands by the escalator. Running at full tilt, he'd barely made a dent in Fisher's lead. He wished he had his son's speed and stamina, but he wasn't going to get there.
The best the detective could do was to double back to the exit road and catch the license number of the Jeep on its way out of the lot.